Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Though he has seen his fair share of action on the big screen (in small but substantial parts in Out For Justice, Under Siege, Clear And Present Danger, Alien: Resurrection, and Training Day) Raymond Cruz is best known to audiences for his television work. And it’s on the small screen that he has been given the greatest latitude to express his talents. Nowhere is this versatility more evident than in comparing his role as Julio Sanchez, the good-guy LAPD detective he’s been playing for a decade, first on The Closer and now on Major Crimes, to that of Tuco Salamanca, the unhinged drug lord and nemesis of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, whose unexpected appearances in the first two episodes of Better Call Saul made for one of the most spectacular debuts in spinoff history. This weekend, Cruz is headed back to bad guy territory to take on the role of notorious Ohio kidnapper Ariel Castro in Lifetime’s Cleveland Abduction.
Raymond Cruz: When I first got there, the writer came up to me and said, “I’m so glad this is in your hands.” Which is a huge compliment.
The A.V. Club: Ariel Castro is a person that most people are aware of since the events are very recent. Did that cause any hesitation on your part, playing someone who’s so deeply disliked?
RC: When they first offered it to me, I told my wife about it, and she said, “Don’t do that part. The guy’s a pig.” She was going on and I said, “Read the script.” So she read the script, turned around, and said, “You have to do this part.” Because she realized the story is really about the survival of the women. It’s about a woman’s faith in God that gets her through this terrible ordeal. She said, “If you don’t play the devil, no one’s gonna care.” It was difficult because he is a real person, so there is a ton of research to do because you want to be as exact as you can while being able to tell the story. It’s incredibly painstaking work. Before I uttered one word, I spent 100 hours just doing my research and finding any kind of information on him from interviews, and basically the only thing you can find is his courtroom statement.
AVC: Were there certain parts of Castro or his story that were particularly important for you to get right?
RC: Like with almost every character, it’s their thought process. You try to figure it out because if you listen to his statements and you read him, he lies a lot. There is a lot of deception going on. He’s very soft-spoken, but he’s a brute. It’s an interesting contradiction… It’s also one of those parts where you can’t rehearse. I told my director, “I’m not rehearsing. When you’re ready, let’s go on the set and let’s just shoot it.” She thought I was crazy.
AVC: Do you always prefer not to rehearse?
RC: Well, I just get very difficult parts. It’s just the energy. You can just block and figure out where the camera is. Because if you try to play around with it, you’re just going to kill yourself. I know people are going to watch it. So many people are interested in it. I know that we delivered a good movie and an interesting story. I can’t wait to see it. I’m like the fan.
AVC: Let’s go back to your very first on-camera role for a second, Maid To Order, with Ally Sheedy.
RC: It was weird. I had one line. I said “Hi, Pam.” I was the boyfriend of the maid who worked with [Ally Sheedy]. I took her to her house for dinner.
AVC: So you didn’t get any deep insight into the Brat Pack lifestyle?
RC: No. [Laughs.] You’re there for one day. You just come in, do your job, and get out. I like doing movies, so it was fun just to get on the set and work.
AVC: You were already steadily employed on The Closer when you first got the call about playing Tuco on Breaking Bad. What appealed to you about the part?
RC: The challenge. It was a difficult part to cast. Sharon Bialy, the partner of my friend Rick Pagano, who is a huge casting director in Hollywood, was casting the show. They couldn’t find anyone who could do it. Rick said, “Oh, I know who could do it.” I actually turned it down two or three times before I ended up taking it.
AVC: Really? Why?
RC: Because I was shooting The Closer at the time and I knew it was going to be difficult to do both projects at the same time.
AVC: Was there a lot of overlap in the production schedules?
RC: Oh yeah, definitely. The only way I could do Breaking Bad was if I shot it on the weekend. So I shot The Closer during the week, then I’d fly to Albuquerque on Friday night, and shoot all of my scenes on Saturday and Sunday. Then I’d fly back to L.A. and do The Closer during the week. So I was shooting seven days a week with no rest and working on two different things. It was crazy.
AVC: And the two characters couldn’t be more different.
RC: No! It wears you out. When you’re shooting you’re doing 12 or 14 hours a day. Then you have to find the time to review stuff for the next day. Then you’re back on it like a hamster on a wheel.
AVC: When you got the script for Breaking Bad, you see who the character is and the lines that are written for him. But the success or failure of the character really rests with you, as it’s ultimately your job to give him his quirks and personality.
RC: Well, you have to translate what’s written. If you look at it, it’s basically just like a blueprint, an outline. You have to really bring life to it. Acting is such a hard job. And there’s a lot of bad people doing it. Everybody thinks they can do it.
AVC: What key decision or personality quirk did you consciously give to Tuco?
RC: I guess his uninterrupted anger. He’s unfiltered.
AVC: He’s also kind of fun.
RC: He’s a live wire. He’s a spark. If anything affects him, he doesn’t hold back. It’s full throttle.
AVC: Is he a one-take kind of a character? It seems like channeling that energy again and again would be difficult.
RC: Oh, yeah! There is no rehearsal. “Let’s just shoot it.” Because you can’t do that. There was no rehearsing; there was just block and shoot.
AVC: Is there a part of Tuco to which you can relate?
RC: His sense of honor. His sense of justice and the fact that he doesn’t back down. He draws a line in the sand and he stands his ground. He has a lot of admirable qualities, when you really think about it. Though he’s a little extreme about the execution. He’s fair. He’s not just there to rip you off or abuse you, just don’t cross him. He’s like a very tough dog, you know? Like a pitbull. If you don’t do anything bad to him you won’t get hurt.
AVC: Do you remember where you were when you learned that Tuco would be appearing on Better Call Saul?
RC: I think we were getting ready to shoot the third season of Major Crimes. They asked if I would come back. Again, both shows were shooting at the same time. So I just said, “Yes, if you guys can work it out.” The producers on Major Crimes are sweethearts, man. They bent over backwards to accommodate shooting for Better Call Saul. They were able to push all my scenes to the back part of the episode.
AVC: Given that Tuco is only a recurring character, are you able to watch Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul in the way a regular viewer might?
RC: Oh, yes. Once I shoot it, I’m done. I even forget what I did. I’m a fan, just like everyone else. I can’t wait to see how the story unravels.
AVC: Between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and The Closer and Major Crimes, you must be getting used to this whole spin-off thing.
RC: Oh, I know. It was a total coincidence. To do two different characters on two hit shows that spun off onto other hit shows.
AVC: And at the exact same time.
RC: I think it’s me, actually. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you have the opportunity to cross over like that, is it important for you to change the character in any way?
RC: The fascinating thing about Major Crimes is that it’s a different show. What’s exciting for actors is to take a character over a long period of time, then to bring something fresh to it all the time. It’s like peeling an onion: You just see layer after layer. Our show, from the very beginning, has been a police procedural. It’s not really about the characters, but it’s character-driven. The fans have gotten little peeks into the characters over a long period of time. And all the characters, there’s such great chemistry between us. We love working together. I wish every actor could have the opportunity to play a character over 11 years.
RC: I’ve been fortunate because I have had a lot of great roles. Directors trust me. When I came into the business, I knew what I was doing. I really learned the craft. I’ve had a lot of good parts in films like Clear And Present Danger, Blood In Blood Out, and even Training Day, which was one scene. It was a 15-page scene, which is crazy. I looked at it and thought, “Oh my god, I want to do that.”
AVC: Your part in Training Day is definitely one of those roles where people sat up and took notice.
RC: That’s the best scene in the movie.
AVC: How did it come about?
RC: They were casting the film and Denzel Washington was starring in it. So I was interested. I really appreciate him as an actor, so I wanted to work in a movie with him. I was up for Cliff Curtis’ part, Smiley. I’m actually older than him, but I look younger, so they wanted somebody who looked older. And he’s a great actor. So they asked if I would do this other part, and I said sure. I wanted to be in the scene; I loved the scene. And they really let us work, which happens with good actors; you let them work and get out of the way. But man, that scene is crazy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Working with Denzel Washington is always a big deal. Was it ever intimidating, especially in your earliest days as an actor?
RC: No. I have never been intimidated by anyone.
AVC: You had the chance to work with Steven Seagal a couple times in the early 1990s.
RC: He is actually a nice guy. He’s not a great actor. He knows he’s not. He does his action thing, but he’s a nice guy… You can’t fool people. You know when you get in front of the camera you have to act. You can either do it or you can’t. There are varying degrees. Some people are just masters at it and some people need a lot of help. Some people, this is all they can do, so you work with it.
RC: What a great movie. It was such a good experience. I could not even get an audition on the phone. The casting director wouldn’t see me. She said I was not right for the part; she had seen me in Blood In Blood Out. My agent kept pushing but she wouldn’t give me an audition. So he went over her head and called the producers. The producer said, “Send him in.” I go in. She was pissed. She looked at me and said, “Are you ready?” I said, “Yes ma’am.” I go in, I read. She was like, “Oh my god.” She grabs the camera and says, “Do that again.” The next day I read for Phillip Noyce. I went in and read one scene. He said, “The part is yours.”
AVC: The casting director must have been thrilled to tell people that she had discovered you.
RC: Oh, that was exactly what she said. [Laughs.] It’s funny because I read the book, because I like Tom Clancy, so I built the character off the novel and I went in there. Because if you read the script, it’s a very difficult script, because it is a lot technical information just being thrown around. The character has to be there without you saying anything. It’s so low-key.
RC: There wasn’t even a part for me. Rick Pagano was the casting director and he said, “The director wants to meet you.” So I met Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who said, “I love your work. Will you be in my movie?” I said, “Well, I don’t really see a part.” He goes, “I’ll create one for you.” So they just threw that character in there and I end up leading everyone through the ship. I’m the last guy who gets killed by the monster. That’s a crazy story.
AVC: So you went from nonexistent character to last man standing?
RC: It wasn’t even in the script. They just added it in, and I became this guy who led them through the ship and showed them the way around. It was fun. It was so great to be in an Alien movie, there are only four or five of them. There’s Alien Vs. Predator and stuff like that, but those don’t count.
AVC: You kept the alien theme going in 1997 with The X-Files, where you played a chupacabra in a very memorable episode.
RC: I love that episode. That’s where Vince Gilligan and I first came into contact. They called and asked if I would do it. We were training for Aliens, because in the first six weeks of Aliens we were under water, so we were doing a lot of underwater training. They asked if I would do it. I said, “I can’t do it because I’m training.” Then my wife auditioned for it and she got a part so I said, “Okay, I’m doing it.” When I read the script I thought, “Wow. This could be really hokey, or really great. It depends on who plays the part.” So my take on it was that I didn’t even look at it as sci-fi; I looked at it as just real. And it worked.
AVC: You have the distinction of appearing in the pilot of Nip/Tuck.
RC: I went in to audition for it. It was a new show. I liked the character. One of my friends, Geoffrey Rivas, got cast in it as the child molester. They were looking for the part of his brother and I went in and read and they hired me right away. It was fun to work with Geoff. We’ve done other things together. Mike Robin and Greer Shephard were the producers on that show, and a couple of years later they offered me The Closer. I liked the character. I liked working with the actors. The pilot’s the best episode of Nip/Tuck.